Birds of Cuba: A Brief Birdwatcher's Guide
The island of Cuba is colorful and diverse, so it will come as no surprise to learn that its variety of bird species is much the same. Birdwatchers in Cuba will find endemic, Caribbean endemic and more common North American birds all over the island. But the most popular places for to find many birds of Cuba are the wooded areas of the Guanahacabibes peninsula, the Zapata peninsula and to the far southeast.
Here are a few examples of Cuba’s beautiful birds that you might see while traveling to Cuba:
Bee Hummingbird: The Bee Hummingbird, Cuba’s endemic hummingbird species, is commonly known as the smallest bird in the world, weighing up to around 1.8 grams and measuring 5 or 6cm in length. Breeding males have a stunning upper plumage of red-pink and blue, which sheds after breeding season. Females have an upper plumage of green/blue, and her lower part is white/grey. Outside of breeding season the two look similar, but outer tail feathers are white-tipped on females and blue/black-tipped on males. Distribution of this hummingbird in Cuba is a little patchy, but sightings have occurred on the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, Zapata Swamp, and to the very far east of the island.
Cuban Grassquit: One of the country’s more exotic-looking endemic birds, the Cuban Grassquit is a must-see when you search for birds in Cuba. Males are identified by their black masked faces and bright yellow collars, with grey crowns and lower plumage and a darker yellow upper plumage. Females are similar, but not quite as brightly colored. The Grassquit can be found all across Cuba, although it is thought that numbers have been dropping in recent years. Head to Cuba’s eastern, dry regions for the highest chance of a sighting.
Cuban Parrot: The Cuban Parrot is characterized by its green body, white upper face, red lower face and neck, and blue on its primary wing feathers. These parrots are large, growing up to 33cm long in adulthood. Not only can it be found in Cuba, but also other Caribbean spots such as the Bahamas and Cayman Islands. This parrot can be most commonly found in Cuba on the Zapata peninsula, but also dotted around south central and western areas. The species is thought to be in decline, but stable, with around 10,000 pairs left in Cuba.
Cuban Parakeet: The endemic Cuban Parakeet can be identified by its green color, with a smattering of red feathers on the bend of its wings. It is also the only parakeet found on the island of Cuba. Its population is in decline, known to have dropped below 5,000. As a result, this species is classified as Vulnerable. The Parakeet’s population is scattered across the island, most commonly found in the Zapata Peninsula, Trinidad Mountains and the Sierra de Najasa.
Cuban Pygmy Owl: This pygmy owl is another of Cuba’s endemic species. But, unlike a few of the other local birds, Cuban Pygmy Owls are found all over the island. These tiny birds, whose feathers are a mixture of grey, brown and white and which grow up to 16cm in height in adulthood, can be seen in various kinds of woodland and forest areas in Cuba. The population is stable, so this is a fairly likely spotting if you’re looking for birds in Cuba.
Cuban Bare-legged Screech Owl: This small owl, endemic to Cuba, can be identified by its brown, grey and white plumage, which is dark on top and light underneath, with some streaks of brown. It has large, dark eyes and differs from most owl species with its long, bare legs. This owl inhabits wooded areas and can be found all over the island of Cuba. But, as they are nocturnal, your best bet for seeing one during the day is looking out for holes in the trees, where the owls commonly roost.
Cuban Emerald: Despite having “Cuban” in its name, the Emerald Hummingbird is actually native to both this island and a number of spots in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. The male of this species is black with iridescent green/blue on top, while the females are much the same but with a grey-brown belly. Sightings of the Cuban Emerald Hummingbird have been known to occur all over Cuba. As they are solitary creatures, you are like to only see one at a time.
Gundlach’s Hawk: This medium-sized hawk is one of Cuba’s endemic species and is classified as Endangered, with roughly 150-200 pairs remaining. There are now only five areas in the country where you can see Gundlach’s Hawk, including the northeast regions of Zapata National Park, the wooded areas to the west of Santiago de Cuba, and north of Guantanamo. But even in these parts sighting are rare. The hawk is characterized, when adult, by its grey-blue upper and white lower plumages, with a black cap and a rust color around its legs. It almost exclusively feeds on other birds, including chickens, which is why it is sometimes considered a pest by locals in Cuba.
Cuban Oriole: Until recently, this Oriole was part of the Greater Antillian Oriole species. But it has since been given its own classification and is now considered one of Cuba’s endemic birds. Adult Cuban Orioles are nearly all black except for bright yellow patches on the side of the neck and at the base of its tail, and they grow up to around 20cm long. The Cuban Oriole inhabits forest areas and parks, often near palms, and are a common sighting.
Cuban Trogon: As Cuba’s national bird, the Cuban Trogon is a must-see. This medium-sized bird can be found all over Cuba in dry or moist forests, and is identified by its blue upper plumage, white breast, and red feathers in the lower part of its body around the legs. These colors correspond to those of the Cuban flag, which is why it was named the national bird pf Cuba. Its nickname with the locals is Tocororo because of its “toco-toco-tocoro-tocoro” call.
Antillian Palm Swift: With a population that spreads out over Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, the Antillian Palm-Swift is a common bird in Cuba. It can be identified by its arching wings, forked tail and black and white colorings. These swifts can normally be found in lowlands and wet grasslands, feeding on insects. They are quite well-adapted to humans, so you shouldn’t find them too shy or inconspicuous, which is a blessing considering how beautiful they are when seen swooping through the skies.
Cuban Tody: Another of Cuba’s endemic bird species, the Cuban Tody is widely found all across the island and its barrier islands. This tiny bird, which only grows up to 11cm in adulthood, is characterized by its wonderful bright colors– green on top, white underneath, with blue hints around and under the wings and a vivid red streak on its beak and neck. The Cuban Tody is an avid hunter, found burrowing for insects for most of the day.
La Sagra’s Flycatcher: With a population that spreads across Cuba, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos and even the US, La Sagra’s Flycatcher is not exactly elusive in this part of the world. Still, it’s one of Cuba’s most charming common birds, with a white breast and brown-beige upper body, striped in part down the wings. This flycatcher is found in forests and woodlands, where it’s easiest for it to nest.
Cuban Green Woodpecker: The Cuban Green Woodpecker is one of a few species of woodpeckers with similar traits and colorings. But this is one of only two endemic to the island. This medium-sized bird is streaked with color– a green upper plumage and green stripes behind the eyes, white underneath, black stripes lining the tips of the wings and tail, and a red streak down its head and neck. They can be commonly found all over Cuba in forest regions, usually alone or in a very small group.
Fernandina's Flicker: The second of Cuba’s endemic woodpecker species, this bird’s signature striped brown/black and yellow feathers are well worth looking out for when birdwatching in Cuba. This species is far rarer than Cuba’s other woodpecker (it’s classified as Vulnerable, with fewer than 900 remaining), with fragmented populations in a handful of places on the island. They’re most commonly found in the Zapata Swamp area, usually sighted in palms, around the edges of woodlands, or feeding on the ground.
Summer Tanager and Scarlet Tanager: These two species are both common North America songbirds, but always a joy to see due to their bright red plumage. The Summer Tanager is medium-sized and males are mostly red, with a few black streaks in its wings. The Scarlet Tanager is also medium-sized, and in the summer breeding season males have a scarlet body with black wings and tail. The females of both species are a dull yellow, making them a little harder to spot, especially as these species usually inhabit high forest canopy.
Greater Antillian Grackle: This medium-sized, jet black bird with yellow eyes is endemic to the Antilles, found on Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Its population is stable and considered common in this region, and sightings have also occurred on the Cayman Islands. The Great Antillian Grackle is known to be noisy and confident, and they’re often found scurrying across the ground looking for insects to feed on.
Cuban Pewee: Although it may not look as impressive as the more colorful birds of Cuba, the Cuban Pewee is nonetheless charming. This small bird– with dark grey upper plumage, white under plumage, a tufted crest and a tiny white crescent behind the eyes– is commonly found in Cuba and the Bahamas, although rare sightings have been known to occur in the US. The Cuban Pewee habitats forests and swamp areas and feeds on insects: It’s sometimes known to capture prey in the air with a brisk snap of the bill.
Loggerhead Kingbird: The medium-sized Loggerhead Kingbird is found across the West Indies, in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, to name a few. There have also been a few rare sightings of this bird in Florida, in particular the Florida Keys. It can be identified by its white chest and neck, black/grey upper plumage with lines of white around the wing feathers, and black crown and beak. In Cuba, it can be found in forest, lowland, mangroves and swamp edges.
Cuban Vireo: The Cuban Vireo is another of the country’s endemic species, commonly found all over the island. The tops of its head and back are a dull grey, while its lower plumage blends into a light yellow, and stripes of white and darker grey line its wings and tail. They inhabit various forest areas in Cuba, including dry and moist lowland forest, mostly at a low altitude, but some can be found in the high forest regions on the island.
Red-legged Thrush: This small thrush is endemic to the Caribbean region, and can be found in Cuba, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Haiti. As the name suggests, it is characterized by its red legs, blue/grey upper plumage and a red ring around its eyes. There are a number of different variations in terms of color, but these features are common. Some also have a red beak, for example. The Red-legged Thrush is usually found in forested areas on the ground, where it likes to walk or run while looking for food.
Yellow-headed Warbler: As the name suggests, this bird can be identified by its bright yellow head. The rest of its feathers are grey on top and light grey/white on the bottom. This is another of Cuba’s endemic species. While it is not endangered, its population is limited to Cuba’s western regions, from the Gunanahacabibes Peninsula to Zapata, stretching slightly down to Cienfuegos and over the Isle de la Juventud. The Yellow-headed Warbler inhabits all kinds of forest regions, as well as semi-arid landscapes.
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British travel writer Emma Higgins has been traveling for three years and has lived in Spain, Canada and Thailand, collecting tales along the way and sharing them on her blog, Gotta Keep Movin'.